Republicans, like most Democrats, would prefer to keep immigration issues out of presidential politics. But restrictionist Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-CO) has other plans. Having announced in January the creation of a presidential campaign exploratory committee, Tancredo hopes to make immigration policy a major campaign issue of the presidential race.
Tancredo, who founded the House Immigration Reform Caucus, says that immigration "is the issue that propels me." It’s a multifaceted issue, he notes: "It touches our educational system, our medical system, our national security, our culture." As an example, Tancredo points to the healthcare crisis, which is "exacerbated by the fact that we are providing health care to millions of people who came here illegally and access our health care system for free. You pay. They get it" (Sioux City Journal, February 4, 2007).
Other candidates see little to gain from the immigration issue. No matter what their position on the contentious issue, the leading candidates fear that raising the topic will lose them votes. If they support legalization or guestworker programs, they risk the wrath of social conservatives and many populist Democrats who adamantly oppose amnesty for undocumented residents. And these candidates also know that they risk alienating many voters, particularly Latinos, if they are regarded as pandering to the immigration restrictionists who demand border walls and stricter immigration law enforcement.
In contrast, Tancredo has nothing to lose and everything to gain from a presidential bid. Although the firebrand politician from an affluent Denver suburb hasn’t managed to make restrictionism the core principle of U.S. immigration policy, he and other nativists in Congress have over the past several years shifted the immigration debate toward their terms—national security, cultural unity, and border control—at the national, state, and local levels. Last year Newsweek correctly noted that "Tom Tancredo is pulling the immigration debate to the right—and away from Bush." Border security and immigration law enforcement have moved from the margins to become mainstream political fare.
While immigration restrictionism is hardly a surefire way to win elections, anti-immigration has become one of the key issues, along with abortion, gay rights, and gun control, that forge new unity among social conservatives. Tancredo’s candidacy will force presidential hopefuls to spell out their positions on legalization, border security, and guestworkers.
Tancredo, who craves publicity, is likely to attract all the media he can handle—not only because of his outspoken position against immigration, but also because of his provocative views on other issues. Speaking two weeks ago at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), Tancredo had the crowd roaring with approval of his red-meat attacks on liberals, moderates, and even other conservatives.
Although regarded as a one-trick pony with his rabid anti-immigrant views, Tancredo is positioning himself as the only true conservative in the current Republican field of candidates. Boasting a 98% lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union, Tancredo can rightfully claim his conservative credentials. Though immigration is his defining issue, Tancredo says that he doesn’t mind being described as a single-issue candidate if people understand that "my single issue is the survival and success of the conservative movement in America."
At CPAC, he railed against what he called "hyphenated conservatives" such as "commonsense conservatives" and "compassionate conservatives." Belief in limited government and traditional values are not to be apologized for, opined Tancredo. "Since when is conservatism itself not enough?" he asked the crowd.
Tancredo gained the favor of the conservative conference with his Ann Coulter-like attacks on liberalism. He warned that Miami is like a "Third World country" because of its immigrants and Spanish language usage and said that the United States needs a leader who supports a strong national defense "because our enemies are psychopaths and our allies are the French."
Tancredo regards immigration control in both military and cultural terms. "The only realistic solution to the problem of illegal immigration," says Tancredo on his 2008 campaign website, "is a strategy of attrition, which seeks to reduce the flow of the illegal alien population over time by cutting off the incentives for coming and staying in America—most importantly by eliminating the jobs magnet."
With our current immigration policies, "We are risking the development of a bilingual nation and a multicultural nation, which is almost an oxymoron," Tancredo has said. "It is very difficult to maintain something like that, especially [under] the kind of threat situation we’re in today with fundamentalist Islam" (OneNewsNow.com,February 12, 2007).
The battle against immigration, says Tancredo, is part of the global war on terrorism. "The very survival of Western Civilization is at risk," Tancredo has warned; he believes "we are in a clash of civilizations" (cited on the teamtancredo.com website).
Formerly a strong supporter of the war in Iraq, Tancredo now calls for a troop deployment to Afghanistan and other locations where the U.S. global war on terrorism is being waged. He says that the civil war in Iraq between Sunnis and Shiites is a process of establishing equilibrium between the deep schisms in Islam and that there is no need for the U.S. military to referee this bloody process.
On his Team Tancredo 2008 website, Tancredo positions himself as an outsider who pledges to "battle the special interests which now control both parties." Righteousness exudes from Tancredo, a politician who has no qualms about associating with nativist and seemingly racist anti-immigrant groups, including border vigilantes. Tancredo is a consistent opponent of gun control, despite living less than a mile from Columbine High School, the scene of one of the country’s most horrific school shootings.
When Tancredo won his first term in Congress in 1998, he pledged to leave office after three terms, but in 2004 and again in 2006 he said he was forced to break his pledge because the immigration threat required his continued leadership in Congress. In the coming months, Tancredo plans to take his "war of attrition" on the national campaign trail.